Though the oldest continually active cathedral in the United States was actually rebuilt three times, it still retains this small nod to its 18th-century past. A wooden soundboard towers over the pulpit, carved in the shape of a famous Christian symbol and delicious Gulf Coast seafood: the scallop.
When the St. Louis Cathedral was originally founded in the early 18th century, audio speakers and microphones had not even been invented and electricity was yet to be understood. As such, soundboards were designed in various shapes and sizes to be placed directly behind and above the pulpits in churches and assembly halls. This innovative acoustic design allowed the sound of a speaker’s voice to bounce off of the soundboard and be projected back to the congregation.
At St. Louis Cathedral, the soundboard was crafted in the shape of a scallop shell. It’s a popular symbol among Christian pilgrims and is mainly associated with Saint James and Saint Augustine. You’ll find similar pulpits in other Catholic churches within New Orleans.
In 2014, a newly carved wooden pulpit and scallop-shell soundboard were installed within the current incarnation of the St. Louis Cathedral to better represent its traditional designs of yesteryear. Though it occasionally serves its intended purpose, the shell soundboard is now more of a decoration, as microphones are often used.
Know Before You Go
The S. Louis Cathedral, and its beautiful interior, are available for viewing during business hours. Please be mindful of active church services and remember that the pulpit is not a selfie platform.